Henning Wehn: interview
Time Out talks World Wars and World Cups with Henning Wehn, who proves Germans do like a laugh
Henning Wehn has performed stand-up in Britain since October 2003. He is overwhelmed by the warm welcome he’s received. The one exception, he says, came when a major promoter explained he wouldn’t book him because ‘a German accent isn’t acceptable to our audiences’. Wehn chooses to see this as ‘a severe error of judgement’ rather than an example of anti-German prejudice.
Punters, too, have always been good-natured, even when they’ve sought to score off his nationality. ‘I regularly get heckled with evergreens, such as “5-1” and “two World Wars and one World Cup”. They’re only funny the first 8,000 times you hear them. How do you work that last one out anyway? I follow football quite closely and I don’t remember America ever winning the World Cup.’
Wehn describes his humour as that of a typically outspoken Ruhrpott (that’s to say, someone from the huge industrial area in the west of Germany). The ‘joke’ often takes the form of a direct statement, bordering on the offensive, of the kind that comedian Stewart Lee recorded in a Guardian article earlier this year. He was out drinking with some German actors in Hanover when one of them remarked: ‘You will notice there are no old buildings in Hanover. That is because you bombed them all.’ At the time, Lee was shocked and embarrassed. On reflection, he found it very funny.
But the astounding news, of course, for any little Englander, is that a German can possess any sense of humour at all. Wehn says he’s baffled by this attitude: ‘Where does it come from and when did it start?’ German tastes, he explains, favour Schenkelklopfer (laugh-out-loud things), like slapstick and visual humour (Mr Bean’s a favourite), as well as practical jokes. Stand-up was never part of the tradition, though there are now several clubs in big cities such as Berlin and Cologne. ‘Presumably stand-up is not so widespread in Germany for no other reason than it never occurred. It’s similar to asking the British why they play rugby instead of handball.’
One area where England has a definite edge, Wehn admits, is in ‘written satire’: ‘Germany has no equivalent to Private Eye or Viz. Apart from that, you will be shocked to learn that there are not many differences between English and German humour.’ He dispels the myth that the German language can’t easily handle wordplay by telling a one-fish-to-another gag that depends on the similar pronunciation of the words ‘hi’ (‘hi’) and ‘hai’ (‘shark’): ‘There are hundreds more like that.’ He points to the standard nature of jokes, regardless of their country of origin, by quoting one of three favourite football jokes chosen by readers of Kicker magazine. ‘Kalle: Ich habe meine frau gegen eine Dauerkarte eingetauscht. Hättest du das auch gemacht? Rudi: Nein. Die saison ist doch schon halb vorbei.’ *
Otherwise, he argues, it’s even debatable whether the English have a better sense of humour. ‘What I know for sure is this country has a better developed humour industry. What the English have in common, whatever their class background, is an astonishing arrogance when it comes to humour. Contrary to the usual trademark modesty and understatement, not one of them ever tires of letting the world know about his or her great sense of humour which all other nations, in particular Germans, lack.’
Wehn will be out to demonstrate what a mere German (or two) can do in ‘Four World Cups and One World Pope’ at the New End Theatre from Thursday. It’s an extended version of the show he performed with compatriot Otto Kuhnle at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Kuhnle is a successful comedy actor who also regularly appears in Wim Wenders movies. In this show he juggles garden gnomes and has them walk a tightrope. Wehn will hold forth about law and order, speak in praise of the decent citizen and celebrate the work ethic.
He accepts that it might be an uphill struggle to win over some hearts and minds. ‘I’m convinced that, in the cold light of day, nobody really believes that people in Germany are humourless and spend their time goose-stepping up and down the Hauptstrasse in Lederhosen, singing David Hasselhoff’s latest hits and munching Bratürste. But it’s such an entertaining thought, so why adjust it? As the saying goes, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.’
* ‘Kalle: I’ve swapped my wife for a season ticket. Would you have done the same?
Rudi: No way. The season is already half over.’
Henning Wehn and Otto Kuhnle take their show to the New End Theatre from November 16 to 25.
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